what fashion owes reality

alek wek by herb ritts web

No one’s willing to pay for reality. Why should they? We all get it every day for free. Reality is not an industry. Fashion is. Every time I read an argument for why fashion should more accurately reflect reality, my gut reaction is What? Why? No! But of course I would say that, I’m a fashion illustrator.

Above on the right is an iconic photograph of fashion model Alek Wek by Herb Ritts. Wek is already an unusual example of a human being, with exaggerated features and proportions. She represents a type of beauty which is so extreme, she seems like an otherworldly, fantastic creature. Despite this already outrageous figure reference, when I interpret the same image in illustration, I exaggerate her look even further. Even a bizarre form of beauty isn’t quite extreme enough for me. This is why I’m an illustrator and not a photographer – I resist being limited to the way things are. My drawings are a fantasy, processed through the distorted lens of my own imagination.

Sometimes, I attend life drawing classes for practice, but I find I can’t ever seem to represent the model as she actually is, even if I try. My lines always remodel the model into whatever I want her to be. I guess I’m most interested in trying to interpret the current fashionable ideal – because that is what fashion illustration is. If fashion illustration reflected the way people actually looked, it would just be… illustration.

The most challenging brief for any fashion image creator is to produce something that is both “realistic” and “aspirational” because these two concepts cancel each other out. This is why I find media artifacts like the so-called “real beauty” campaign more unsettling than reassuring. They confuse the viewer, calling a subtler, more insidious version of idealization ‘reality’. A realistic ideal is an oxymoron. I much prefer to see a dramatic divide between ideal and reality, because the corrosive effects of a beauty ideal seem to occur when impressionable minds conflate fantasy and reality. I desire a beauty ideal that is so extreme, it is clear that it is a form of entertainment, a dream world, as distinct from the real world as an action movie or a video game.

Like any form of glamour, fashion doesn’t owe reality anything. If you want to see reality, you can find it elsewhere, everywhere, free of charge.

7 thoughts on “what fashion owes reality”

  1. Love this piece!

    I think this really speaks to the work fashion does: it takes us from functional coverings for bipeds to inspirational/aspirational fantasy.

    That’s why I love seeing the stylings of people like Rupaul or Dita von Teese. They are so open about the gap between the bodies they were born with and the personas they choose to publicly perform – and also about their transformational journeys. Google Dita’s high school picture and you’ll find a blonde, no boob job, no beauty mark, no 22” corset-trained waist, no vintage dress. It’s still her, but it’s many stylist versions removed.

    People love to rail against the popular fashion model ideal being unachievable, as if there were only one ideal. The more important conversation is how people can use fashion to achieve their own ideal image/persona/self-expression. With a little more punk-mindedness and a little less fear of deviating from the norm, people could find interesting ways to use mainstream fashion to subvert itself, creating their own fashion ideals.

  2. Absolutely! I wholeheartedly agree. Even my curvaceous croquis are elongated, accentuated.

    I think it is an interesting rope to walk in my own art. What aspect of reality I want to keep in and what to cull or contort. I think I might have left the dimple on her butt cheek in my drawing since it is my favorite aspect of the real image. But that is what makes ever piece so interesting.

  3. Regardless of whether or not you owe reality anything, do you feel like you have a political/moral responsibility that affects your work and aesthetic? While I recognize that there are objectifying fantasy elements built-into much of fashion, I do think it is important to moderate these influences. Don’t forget that Alek Wek is still a person and not a “creature”- that line made me a bit uncomfortable.

  4. Hi dadaDan,

    I’m not a very political person, and my greatest moral value is “freedom” – so as long as I’m free to draw whatever I please, and people are free to hire me or look away as they please, I don’t feel any particular responsibility one way or the other. I was careful to describe Wek as “seems like a … creature”, but I understand your discomfort. Regarding the post, the link was meant to highlight how Dove’s version of “reality” is actually still an idealization, falling far short of actual reality. I even like how that post even contradicts mine somewhat because I enjoy living in a culture where people are *free* to hold their own opinions.

  5. Love it!

    I would express this like the Carvern Myth allows: Beauty is an aboslute concept, and any expression of it in reality can only represent an aspect of it but is unable to carry the whole concept within itself.

Comments are closed.